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Craft Distillers Push The Envelope, Experimenting With New Grains And Styles

August 20, 2013

Retailers are struggling to find space on their shelves for a tidal wave of artisanal whiskies, produced from grains ranging from oats and spelt to quinoa and buckwheat. These new players are moving beyond white moonshine and into aged products with caramel colors and oak flavors.

In most cases, the craft players’ products are quite different from those of the big players. One example is Corsair Distillery in Nashville, which launched five years ago. Corsair produces a Triple Smoke whiskey ($45 a 750-ml.) that employs three batches of malt—one each smoked from peat, beech and cherry wood. Whisky Advocate named it Artisan Whiskey of the Year last spring. The aging (about six months) is done with the liquid resting in 15- and 30-gallon casks instead of the industry standard 53-gallon cask. Triple Smoke’s volume has now reached 10,000 nine-liter cases, and it’s available in 20 states.

Corsair also makes a pumpkin spiced whiskey ($38) and 12- and 9-grain whiskies called Insane in the Grain ($69) and Grainiac ($50). Those products use buckwheat, spelt, oats, sorghum, quinoa and even triticale—the last a hybrid of barley and rye. Another Corsair product called Rye-Mageddon ($39) is composed of 80% rye and 8% chocolate rye, with 12% barley added.

Andrew Webber, CEO and co-founder of Corsair along with Darek Bell, will soon have another four-wash still that will expand the company’s capacity. Like other craft distillers, Corsair has freely divulged its mashbill recipes—something the big distilleries in Kentucky never do. “We don’t try to compete with Kentucky. We’ve never released a traditional Bourbon,” Webber says. “All our products, across the board, are different and unusual. That’s our intention.”

Much of the craft movement appears to be centered on locavore sourcing. At Mississippi River Distilling Co. in LeClaire, Iowa, in the middle of the corn and soybean belt, the back label of the Cody Road Bourbon ($37) carries the name of local farmers Dan and Ryan Clark, who supplied the 70% of corn in the mash, as well as Tracy Doonan of nearby Reynolds, Illinois, who supplied the 20% wheat and 10% rye. The day of distillation is also noted. The distillery isn’t far from Interstate 80, and thus has succeeded in attracting 60,000 tourists since its start three years ago with a sign on the freeway promoting tours and tastings.

“Our customers are attracted by the farm-to-glass story,” says Ryan Burchett, co-owner of Mississippi River with his brother Garrett. The brothers scoop up 25 bushels of grain at a time from their farmer suppliers, then mill and mash it at the plant themselves. They apologize that their barrels, ordered from a small cooperage in Minnesota, aren’t locally made. “There’s no cooperage nearby,” Ryan says. “But we want our customers to be able to see the whole process unfold right here.” Production is at 2,000 cases this year, with distribution to 13 states.

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